Moving Forward: Bina Bhattacharyya on Resilience, Creating Places, and Lifelong Learning

Moving Forward: Bina Bhattacharyya on Resilience, Creating Places, and Lifelong Learning

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By Julia Gamolina

Bina Bhattacharyya, Associate Partner, with Robert A.M. Stern Architects, is a design leader in the office, experienced in a range of project types including single-family houses, multi-family residential towers, and mixed-use masterplans for communities and resorts across the United States and in China. Bina has designed many award-winning projects for RAMSA including Heart of Lake, a new residential community in Xiamen, China which received a Charter Award from the Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) in 2014 as well as awards from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) and MIPIM Asia. Prior to joining Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Bina worked with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Urban Design Group (now 4240) in Denver, Colorado, as a designer of residential, resort, and civic projects. 

Bina received her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University and her Master of Science degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. She is a member of the Urban Design Forum, the American Institute of Architects, the Congress for the New Urbanism. As a member of the Urban Land Institute, Bina serves as a council member at the national level on the Community Development Council and on the New York chapter’s Housing Council. In her interview, Bina talks about experiencing different places and firms and overcoming hardship, advising young architects to find purpose in everything and to ask a lot of questions.

JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?

BB: I have always had a variety of interests—especially around creative exploits—that naturally led me to architecture. Moving around a bit in my youth also made an impact. Born in Ottawa, Canada, we lived in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil; Berkeley, California; and then Golden, Colorado—all before I turned eight. In each new place we lived or visited, my parents liked to explore, so we sought out the landmarks, drove through the neighborhoods, visited the town centers, and engaged in nature.

Those things added together made me aware of art, architecture, landscape and urbanism at a young age—and I knew that when I grew up I wanted to create those kinds of places. I knew this before I entered middle school—that I wanted to be an artist and an architect. 

Bina learning to build in the workshop at age six.

Bina learning to build in the workshop at age six.

Model-building in the Rand Hall Studio, during Bina’s freshman year at Cornell.

Model-building in the Rand Hall Studio, during Bina’s freshman year at Cornell.

What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?

That I am strong, resourceful, and resilient.  I went to Cornell to study Architecture in 1985. In those days, it was, and still is, one of the best—if not the best—undergraduate programs in the U.S. and therefore highly competitive beyond the admissions process. The program was challenging in every respect—as these programs are meant to be—and that was something difficult to adapt to. But in addition to that, my family had business and financial challenges that hit me my second year. Long story short—I had to drop out for 2 years to qualify as independent for financial aid. 

Upon return to Cornell everything was tough. While trying to become smarter about being a student, I also needed to continue to work half-time to pay for school—so time was very precious.

Wow. What did you do?

I tried to find any job I could related to the architecture profession, so I could feel like I was still making progress towards my goals.

My first job was with the City of Rochester as an intern in their architecture services department. A great first job, where I saw from the inside how the government agencies that are in charge of our cities’ function. My second job was with Thomas Associates in Ithaca—another building-block experience. The firm was composed of architects, landscape architects, interior designers and engineers who together designed mostly schools. I worked with them continuously full-time and part-time until a year after I (finally) graduated. There were a lot of people who helped me along the way at work and at Cornell. Professor Victoria Meyers stood out as particularly encouraging, a role model, and mentor.

That tough experience—financial pressure, dropping out, trying to get those first jobs with little experience, advocating for myself with the University to get and maintain financial aid, and trying to balance working half-time with architecture school—forced me to grow up in countless ways. I completed my degree off-schedule in a non-traditional way, and while doing so reconfirmed my sense of purpose and chosen career path. The hardship gave me a priceless gift - the confidence of knowing I could get myself past any hurdle to ultimately achieve my goals.

“And isn’t that what school should do—make us think in different ways and be uncomfortable?”

That’s extremely formidable. Anytime I was overwhelmed in architecture school and felt like I had too much on my plate, my mom would tell me, “Julia, what about the kids working three jobs to put themselves through school?” What did you do after you graduated?

I continued to work at Thomas Associates for another year, so I could be part of a test-flight team using AutoCad for the first time in the office—everything was still drawn by hand on Mylar at that point, and this one project—documenting an existing school and then doing the additions and renovations in Cad would be the trial project. It was fun to be part of the team playing with the software, working out the kinks, and creating the system and workflow for the rest of the office.

Once that was set, it was time to leave the nest. I decided to give Denver a try. There was a building boom there, along with the added attraction of friends and family. I went to work for Urban Design Group, now called 4240. I liked their thinking and contributions around the revitalization of downtown Denver, including a few projects on the 16th Street Mall, which had recently transformed from a dead, unfriendly automobile boulevard into an attractive pedestrian-only shopping street, filled with activity and people. Peter Dominick and Randy Johnson were great mentors, along with many others, who taught me everything important I needed to know—and is still true to this day—about designing private residences on the one hand, and designing hotels and resorts on the other. I was there for nearly six years, and became licensed during that time. And then it was time to leave another nest.

To go to graduate school?

Exactly. I loved my last years at Cornell so much, that I graduated thinking someday I’d like to go back to school, after I’d gotten some experience under my belt. I also thought if I ever wanted to teach at the College level, that additional education and degree would be important. After working for nearly seven years, and reaching the milestone of getting my license, I realized it’s now or never. I’d always dreamed of living in New York City, so I went to Columbia. What better way to come to New York than go to school?

Neighborhood at Uptown, Jinjiang

Neighborhood at Uptown, Jinjiang

The Obelisk at Uptown, Jinjiang was designed with the city's unique heritage in mind.

The Obelisk at Uptown, Jinjiang was designed with the city's unique heritage in mind.

interior detail of the Obleisk at Uptown, Jinjiang.

interior detail of the Obleisk at Uptown, Jinjiang.

What did you learn at Columbia that was different from what you learned at Cornell?

Everything was different. The culture, the focus of the studios, the means of visual communication—everything. Simply put Columbia was digital to Cornell’s analog. It opened my eyes to thinking about architecture and urbanism from a totally different point of view, which was uncomfortable. And isn’t that what school should do—make us think in different ways and be uncomfortable? I got what I was looking for.

After graduating from Columbia, you worked for OMA. How did that come about and what did you learn there?

I loved Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, which I was introduced to in grad school. I loved his writing and I loved the work the office was producing. They happened to be doing a lot of work in the US just then, and interested in hiring US architects. I interviewed with the team in Rotterdam, and Rem in New York. When I got the offer to join the office in Rotterdam I jumped at the chance.

The office had a high-pressure competitive and not always friendly atmosphere, which I had not experienced in the work-place before. Rem told me in my interview that he prefers, even cultivates, the tension, friction, and high-turnover that exists in the office, because he believed it kept the environment more creative. I appreciate how everyone was on their toes—no complacency, the constant flow of ideas, and the intense debates about which was ultimately the best idea. When you’re trying to build on the world stage, in sensitive places doing unusual things, you have to be ready for a fight, so-to-speak. I cannot think of another incubator that has produced so many people, consistently, doing exactly that.

“When you’re trying to build on the world stage, in sensitive places doing unusual things, you have to be ready for a fight, so-to-speak.”

You then traveled for one year. Tell me about that.

I was unable to afford the Rome Program while I was at Cornell and had always coveted that in-depth experience of living and studying abroad.  I had been pondering and saving for my ideal ‘Grand-Tour’ ever since. I had a stash from my years in Colorado, and saved every penny, living like a pauper while in Rotterdam. I spent three months traveling through East and South Africa, and then another nine touring many countries throughout Europe - I had used my work-holidays to tour Scandinavia already. Thankfully Europe has a great infrastructure to travel inexpensively, and in the end, I pulled it off.

It was an intense and highly productive time, utilizing so many of my creative passions, particularly photography, in the pursuit of becoming a better designer. The experience had a profound effect—as important to my professional development and career as either of my college degrees.

How did you end up at Robert A.M. Stern Architects?

My dream and long-term plan had always been to live and work in New York City. RAMSA was uniquely appealing to me because of Bob Stern: to me, he was and is a man wearing many hats - all stylish of course - and an influencer on the world stage. His interest in architecture, urbanism and history were well known to me. The design process, underpinning each project with research and analysis, I guessed would be a good fit for my personality—and I was right.

Bina’s early luxury high-rise residential experience at RAMSA as Project Architect for the Clarendon in Boston.

Bina’s early luxury high-rise residential experience at RAMSA as Project Architect for the Clarendon in Boston.

Heart of Lake, Xiamen, China, nearing completion

Heart of Lake, Xiamen, China, nearing completion

In those seventeen years, what have been the significant milestones for you?

Too many to name! The Clarendon, in Boston and for Related, was my first luxury high-rise residential project. Leading Uptown Jinjiang, an 8 million square feet, mixed-use community for Legend, begun in 2014 and currently under construction in China, has been a remarkable challenge and opportunity given in its scale and complexity.

Each project I’ve had in the office has had unique design and leadership challenges that have added more skill-sets or growth-rings on top of the last, and led to ever-increasing roles and responsibilities. I am fortunate to also be engaged in thinking about and working with others to lead our studios, develop our business, and share our ideas with more and more audiences out in the world.

Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges?

One has been how to balance career and family, maintain friendships and stay healthy. I heard someone put it this way once—“you can have it all, just not all at the same time.” I have certainly found that to be true! I have had extraordinary opportunities that have demanded great energy—and that I haven’t wanted to turn down—while at the same time wanting to be present for my friends and family. I can’t do it all—I do what I can when I can. It is a constant struggle.

“I can’t do it all - I do what I can when I can.”

Tell me more about that.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to design Heart of Lake, RAMSA’s first master-planned community in China, with Bob Stern, and the two Partners-in-charge of the office’s work in Asia—Paul Whalen and Grant Marani—for a site in Xiamen, China, for the developer Vanke. It was a tough design challenge, it was tough figuring out how to work half-way across the world, on and on. Anything you can imagine did not go smoothly, but it turned out to be one of the greatest opportunities of my career.

I’m glad I stuck with it, because it was by all standards a huge success; it won a variety of awards and kick-started a run of master-planning projects for us in China, and ever-increasing design responsibilities, and recognition for me as a design-leader both inside and outside the office. I am an Associate Partner in the firm now as a direct result of my contributions to that project and those that followed.

Walking a project site during construction in China.

Walking a project site during construction in China.

A typical design worksession, in the war-room at RAMSA.

A typical design worksession, in the war-room at RAMSA.

How did you end up getting through it?

I have great support systems. The partners provided opportunities and mentorship, and I have many other colleagues who are great allies.

My husband, my daughters, my in-laws, and our friends create the ballast. Trying to balance work, family, stress—we all experience it, and it helps if you have family you can rely on, peers whom you can relate to, and a partner, as I do, who is happy and willing to do more than his share of the heavy-lifting at home, despite his own busy career, Andrew has always been interested and invested in my career. He’s unfailingly positive—enthusiastic- even as I have travelled more and more frequently for work and have been able to do less at home. Together we are trying our best to set a positive example for our two girls, Daphne,12, and Giselle, my step-daughter, 24, to aim higher.

“Try to find purpose in everything you’re doing—as it will keep you motivated even when at face-value the current assignment you have may not seem so interesting.”

Throughout and from all this, what has been your general approach to your career?

Keep moving forward! And focus on the positive. I have trusted my gut about where to live, work and study, and what types of projects I’m interested in working on. I’m very curious, analytical, and optimistic by nature. I thrive on learning new things, and mastering new skills. That means being uncomfortable on a pretty regular basis, and I am ok with that.

Finally, what advice do you have for those who are just starting their careers in this field?

Try to find purpose in everything you’re doing—as it will keep you motivated even when at face-value the current assignment you have may not seem so interesting. Stay curious—ask lots of questions, and read everything you can.

Go see, study, and experience places in person. Pursue your dreams and passions. Don’t worry you’ll fall behind if you go to grad school, or won’t be able to get a job if you take time to travel or start your family. Architecture is a long and slow career-path and it will still be there waiting for you when you return. Don’t give up!

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